Archives: The Omnipresent Specter of the Merciful Barbecue Fork
I unearthed a few horribly embarrassing memories last Sunday night around 1AM, after I had been trying to fall asleep for two hours. That’s the time they usually claw their way out of my memory, their rotted hands bursting out of the topsoil contained in a drawer labeled “MEMORIES: MIDDLE SCHOOL – HIGH SCHOOL.” Yes, my memory is like a filing cabinet filled with dirt and teeming with corpses. Teachers always said I was gifted.
My embarrassing memories are like grains of soil my mind continually tills up, so that the second one has sunk into the recesses of my memory, it’s pulled directly to the top again. At least at this point in my life I have enough that it never becomes tedious. Back in 6th grade, I only had 3 or 4 really embarrassing memories, and most of them involved getting hit in the face with baseballs. It wasn’t until school dances became a thing that I could really start stacking those moments up. But once they did, I could count on an endless bank of soul-crushing experiences to continually horrify me.
One of my favorite Dave Barry columns focused on memories, specifically how the only two things our brain manages to keep track of are radio jingles and embarrassing moments. Barry wrote that the re-experience of these moments was so vivid, he could easily picture a man with a good career and loving family, while grilling up some burgers over the weekend, recollect a childhood memory so shameful that he stabs himself in the brain with a barbecue fork. The man’s friends and family would all wonder what must have drove this man to his desperate deed – a second life? hidden financial woes? – none of them suspecting that the man was thinking of the time his entire seventh-grade class looked at him at the exact moment he popped an enormous zit on his face. While that exact scenario never happened to me, the description of an sudden overwhelming, shameful recollection is so familiar that I am glad I do not own a barbecue grill.
The worst part is, most of the memories really aren’t worth talking about. They seem to come in types rather than instances of complete and utter humiliation, which, while embarrassing, would still make good stories. There’s about a thousand variations on “hey, remember that time you started talking about something you knew nothing about because you wanted to be a part of the conversation, and then someone called you on it, and then everyone looked at you?” And several dozen more versions than I’d like of “hey, remember that time you liked a girl, and you were trying to talk to her, and at some point it became extremely obvious that you had focused on her so much that you were coming across as creepy, and the moment you noticed this you realized that all her reactions to everything you had been saying were the conversational equivalent of running away from a mugger?”
There are also the litany of more minor embarrassments, which quickly recede into the background of my consciousness and generally don’t come up again, but which tend to greet me every time I wake up after a night out with friends. Even if I didn’t drink at all the previous night, I wake up in the morning absolutely mortified by at least half a dozen things I said. Was I talking too much? Was I spending too much time silent, and making people believe I wasn’t having a good time? Why did I go out at all when I had so much work to do? (that’s not an embarrassment, but it’s usually the first thought once regret begins to take hold of me).
The truth is, almost none of these regrets are necessary- most likely I didn’t say anything that was even memorable, let alone something that is cause for deep regret. One of the things it took me way too long to realize was that other people are generally focusing on themselves much more than anyone around them, and that it takes them actual effort to pay attention to you. So most of the things you say will barely register an hour later, and they’re unlikely to remember you embarrassing yourself unless it’s the only impression of you they get. Possibly not even then.
But though I know this, I can’t seem to stop myself from feeling bad about most of the things I end up saying most of the time. Even though intellectually, I know it’s pointless to obsess over this stuff, it feels like somebody keeps pushing a button in my head that doesn’t let me stop. I’ve been told that I will eventually feel more comfortable in my own skin, but I’ve been hearing that since middle school. Maybe I just need to accept that my skin isn’t that comfortable.